Self-respect Movement in South India with special reference to Tamil Nadu DR.K. VEERAMANI
It is well known by now that the Self-Respect Movement of Tamil Nadu has been the
monumental creation of a single individual Periyar E.V.Ramasamy - so that the name of
the great movement and that of its outstanding architect - are synonyms. Thus the story of the Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu is the story of Periyar himself. So I am sure that whenever I indulge in good details on the many facets of this outstanding personality, I will not be accused of over-doing.
Self-Respect Movement launched
It is generally known today that Periyar launched the Self-Respect Movement in 1925. But a fact less known - and certainly more important - is that as for Periyar, his very entry into public life marks the beginning of his Movement. For, when he joined the Congress as its Chief in Tamil Nadu in 1920, he did so with a burning desire to serve the people on the social front. i.e. more on the social front than on the political one. And the belief itself was in turn the result of the deceptive social facade that was given to the Congress Party in those days. But very soon he found that the Congress was not at all a social organization as it professed itself to be, but a pseudo-social body which sheltered under its roof only the reactionaries and the orthodoxy - particularly the Brahmins, who were deadly against any real change to the social structure. But what pained him more was the fact that Gandhi was a willing leader of this anti-progress clique in the Congress. In a crucial discussion with Gandhi at Bangalore in1925 he asserted that if the society was to be saved, then the Congress, the Hinduism and the Brahminism should all go. He quit Congress the very same year.
The need of the day now was to find for himself an unrestricted platform from where to speak the theme of the philosophy of Self-Respect. And so was born the
Self-Respect Movement in 1925 in Tamil Nadu, which was to grow to be one of the most powerful influencing factors of the society in this part of the sub-continent.
Rare combination of qualities
Periyar was a person of modest academic schooling. Yet he showed some of the rarest combination of qualities which alone enabled him to achieve success in the manner and measure he did. Perhaps the most important of his qualities was his capacity to see things in their true perspective, and his ability to remain uninfluenced by the forces of environment, though he had other qualities like resoluteness, honesty, thrift and the like. He had all those rare qualities. But I am of the opinion that it is his capacity to see for himself- his masterly diagnosis of the society -and above all his capacity to remain his own self without being influenced by the environment that made him what the world acknowledges of him.
Periyar offered to the society his
Self-Respect Movement. Now let us examine what his philosophy of Self Respect means. His philosophy, first of all, is one that did not lend itself to misinterpretation.
More important, he has so cast it, that it was shorn of metaphysical subtleties in order to make it look simple and function better.
When others of his day loved to chant of political freedom, spiritual upliftment and other ‘bigger’ things of life, Periyar was down to earth enough to see that his people needed first and foremost their dignity to be salvaged and their self respect to be restored. That was Periyar’s diagnosis of the society. And why? He saw before him a society - one of the most backward on earth - where inequality was the order of the day, and where the majority, groaning under ignorance, and poverty and illiteracy where exploitation in the most ruthless manner by a greedy minority - the Brahmins. Taking full advantage of the people’s ignorance and their blind faith in god, the Brahmins were seen resorting to some of the most sinister designs ever committed by man. The society had been so structured, the code so cast and the gods themselves so shaped to perpetuate their domination over the whole society. As Dr.Ambedkar put it later, “the Hindu religion was to be found as one which is not intended to establish liberty, equality and fraternity. It is a gospel which proclaims the worship of the superman - the Brahmin - by rest of the society.” (Dr.B.R.Ambedkar in “Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah”.)
He launched a number of dailies, magazines and weeklies - the most popular being ‘Kudi Arasu’, ‘Puratchi,’ ‘Pagutharivu’, ‘Viduthalai’ and ‘Unmai’ in Tamil, and ‘Revolt’, ‘Justice’, and ‘ The Modern Rationalist’ in English.
A number of Tamil books nearly 800 (till date) in number - were also published on the life and thoughts of some of the world’s rationalist thinkers, philosophers
and the writers.
In short he saw that in the grand scheme of exploitation, the privileged class (the Brahmins) has fully exploited god, religion and superstition, so that his programme, if it were to be effective, should seek to contain these - god, religion and superstition.
The Philosophy of Self-Respect
Periyar offered to the society his Self-Respect Movement. Now let us examine what his philosophy of Self Respect means. His philosophy, first of all, is one that did not lend itself to misinterpretation. More important, he has so cast it, that it was shorn of metaphysical subtleties in order to make it look simple and function better. For he was determined to communicate with the man in the street, the commoner, the teeming millions, the over-whelming majority of the society - the non-Brahmins.
The term Self Respect, to Periyar, was more than this. To him it was the magic word that would restore to man his lost dignity. Yes, his dignity was first and foremost to man, which when preserved, Periyar thundered, would bring in its wake all other virtues.
At a time when the fashion of the day was to talk of political independence, Periyar was alone to lay stress on Self-Respect, as against the Congress which placed stress on political freedom, for it believed that once dawned, the rest would follow automatically. We now know and the nation has fully now realised what is political freedom without human dignity and self-respect! For those who showered criticism and derisive laughter on Periyar in those days, I would ask now who has the last laugh? Periyar’s Congress critics or Periyar himself ?
Five Pronged Fight
And so he placed all emphasis on Self-Respect and set out on his life’s mission - one of the most hazardous ever undertaken by man.
He chalked out his blue-print based on his creed of self-respect. And what was his blueprint? To put it short, it meant nothing but a fight extraordinary - a five pronged fight against god, religion, Congress, Gandhi and the Brahminism.
In order to put into effect his programme, he gathered round him a band of dedicated workers, and decided on propaganda and agitations as his weapons.
Soon he launched a number of dailies, magazines and weeklies - the most popular being ‘Kudi Arasu’, ‘Puratchi,’ ‘Pagutharivu’, ‘Viduthalai’ and ‘Unmai’ in Tamil, and ‘Revolt’, ‘Justice’, and ‘The Modern Rationalist’ in English. A number of Tamil books nearly 800 (till date) in number - were also published on the life and thoughts of some of the world’s rationalist thinkers, philosophers and the writers.
With these popular and powerful media, he was able to reach the masses, kindling their thinking and waking them up into action. Article after article started appearing in his papers. Most of the writings were done by him. The difficulties of running such papers in those days carrying revolutionary ideas to a society steeped in religion and superstition could well be imagined. In spite of heavy odds, he was determined to go ahead - and he did go ahead.
In his early days, he was ably assisted by his life partner Mrs.Nagammaiyar and a band of dedicated workers who did the propagating through the length and breadth of Tamil world. Special mention must be made of Messers. S.Ramanathan, Pattukottai Alagirisami, Mayuram Natarajan, Nagai Mani, Ponnambalanar, Kaliappan, Dindigul Subramaniam, S.Gurusamy and C.P.Chitrarasu, Kalaignar M.Karunanidhi, the present Chief Minister. They may be taken as the first contingent of soldiers with whose dedicated work he accomplished the first phase of his work. But it was his second contingent which consisted of some of the most brilliant orators, learned scholars and dedicated workers that brought him a significant success.
The most prominent among them was the versatile Thiru C.N.Annadurai. Annadurai - ‘Anna’ to his countless admirers - was a combination of many things in one. He was perhaps the first graduate youth fresh from college to be attracted to Periyar. And quite apart from his learning he showed a rare combination of brilliant oration and fine writing - perhaps the most brilliant orator Tamil Nadu produced in the modern times. He was also a fine dramatist, a popular playwright and a forceful debater (when this, all popular leader of Tamil Nadu captured power and formed his ministry in 1967, he dedicated his whole ministry to noble father Periyar.) And then Kalaignar Karunanidhi (the Present Chief Minister), Prof.K.Anbazhagan (the present Finance Minister of Tamil Nadu) and Navalar Nedunchezhiyan, (former Tamil Nadu Education Minister) and a host of others. And quite apart from these full time followers he also discovered and brought to light a number of talented men in all walks of life, who had hitherto been systematically blacked out for their progressive views. Making good use of their talents, he was forging ahead with his programmes, and the tide was fast turning in his favour.
The Arduous Journey
His journey from the day he launched the Self-Respect Movement in 1925 to the end of his long life was not all a bed of roses, especially in the initial stages. His path was strewn with more thorns than roses, and he won more brickbats than bouquets. Yet the fortitude and courage he displayed is truly amazing.
Periyar was not the one who was satisfied with mere slogans, sermons and rhetorics.
On the other hand, even before he could completely recast the society of his dreams, he saw no reason why the non-Brahmins who were virtually shut out of official position and educational opportunities, should groan indefinitely in poverty, illiteracy and ignorance.
Especially in the early years of his launching his movement he was to face an avalanche of opposition - the kind that would have swept away anybody of a lesser calibre. He was continuously described as pro-British and condemned as a trouble shooter and an atheist. Only brickbats and chappals greeted him wherever he went.
Once when he was addressing a meeting at Chinnalapatti, a village near Gandhigram in Madurai District, he was stoned resulting in serious injuries, when he got his left arm fractured. At Madurai itself the huge conference pandal at Vaigai was set on fire. In 1946 and while visiting Sivaganga he was actually greeted with a huge arch of old and worn-out chappals. At Cuddalore, chappals and snakes were hurled on him. Paradoxically today, it is at these places, including Madurai and Cuddalore massive statues of Periyar with inscriptions of his Self-Respect philosophy on the pedestals have been installed by the local people’s committees.
The opposition Periyar faced
Thus Periyar met with a spate of opposition- some direct and blunt and others subtle and cunning. Many of his critics wanted to side track or otherwise water down his accent on social reforms. There were those who suggested to him that he would not place undue importance on the social ills and that he would rather work for Swaraj, for these ills would instantly fade away the moment the country attained political freedom. How direct and ‘prophetic’ was his reply (given by him as farback in 1928) when he thundered, “Politicians may say that untouchability will go if we get Swaraj. To them I say, not only Swaraj but even Dharmaraj, Ramaraj, Harichandra raj and the Raj of the very gods - all these were responsible for originating and organising this blot on humanity”. (Presidential address - South Indian Social Reformers Conference held at Madras on 26th Nov. 1928).
Problem of Untouchables
No other problem agitated his mind more than that of the unfortunate section - the Scheduled Castes - which has been virtually condemned to the lowest rung in the society as ‘Neechas’, ‘Panchamas’ and ‘Pariahs’, untouchables and unseeables! Of this evil he declared in the same conference that ‘a country where there is a class of people who are not entitled to walk in public streets, who are not allowed to worship their gods in their own temples and are prevented from using common wells and tanks, such a country may as well be destroyed by an earthquake, burn out by a conflagration or submerged by the waters of the ocean. If “god is all merciful” he should have obliterated our country out of existence long ago”. Occasionally he used to indulge in lighter vein even as he was illustrating some of the grim situation. To a visiting pressman he once defined India as “a strange land with 55 crores of people divided in as many castes.”
Periyar was not the one who was satisfied with mere slogans, sermons and rhetorics. On the other hand, even before he could completely recast the society of his dreams, he saw no reason why the non-Brahmins who were virtually shut out of official position and educational opportunities, should groan indefinitely in poverty, illiteracy and ignorance. The year 1916 was perhaps the peak year of Brahmin domination in the official posts and political offices. To cite an example, for the 214 government posts held by the Brahmins, only 73 went to non-Brahmins (in the medium and low categories) and often the higher categories; for the ten posts held by the Brahmins, not one went to the non-Brahmins (Source: Journal of the Legislative Council, Madras. July 1917-1918). And equally distressing were the figures for the graduates (including post-graduates and engineers) in1918 for Brahmins and non-Brahmins were respectively 11921 and 3460 - (Dr.Miss Saraswati in her book “Minorities in Madras State”, PP 48,49)
in 1973 the Movement was being ably guided by the new President Annai
E.V.R. Mani Ammaiyar.
A notable event
since her assuming the presidentship was the celebration of “Ravana Leela” in December, 1974, when the effigies of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana were burnt down. This event which rocked the entire orthodoxy all over India was no mean achievement of the movement today.
Periyar saw the urgent need to set right the whole disorder, and offered what was known as the Communal Representation as the solution for the topsy turvy state of affairs. The Communal G.O. was ultimately passed in the Madras Legislative Council. And very soon the gulf of differences that existed before, soon narrowed down. (K.Veermani’s Article in ‘Viduthalai’ Periyar Birthday Number 1963.)
And this trend of reversal started to show positive acceleration. Very soon Non-Brahmins were getting more and more, as Brahmins were getting less and less. Even then the Brahmins were getting well above their due share of 3% of the total; still they felt upset and uprooted since all these years they have been monopolising these posts out of all proportions to their legitimate share. Perhaps no other statement would better express their plight than that of Mr.J.B.Kripalani who lamented: “In Tamil Nadu as well as Maharashtra the Brahmins may well be regarded as a Backward Community today. Even during the period when the Congress was ruling in Tamil Nadu, only one Brahmin found a place in the State Cabinet. And today during the term of the D.M.K. Rule there is no one there. The situation in Maharashtra is almost the same. Even the official posts are denied to them so that these unfortunate Brahmins migrate in an exodus from Tamil Nadu to Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta in search of employment. (J.B.Kripalani in his Article in “Indian Express” dt.30-7-1970).
Periyar was not satisfied with merely posts in Government offices and seats in the colleges. In fact, there was no facet of human endeavour which did not receive his attention. Mention may be made of his contribution to women’s liberation. “I am not very happy over the status given to women in India. Either they are treated as slaves with no human rights or in the other extreme they are admired at things of beauty to pander to the beastly urges of the menfolk.
I hold that the proper place for women is somewhere between these two extremes. They are not intended to live in the shadow of men; but have positive role to perform in their own right.” (Viduthalai, 1940). He was also the pioneer in India to advocate Family Planning. And his Tamil script reforms (which he had been so assiduously following in all his publication for the last 4 decades) has recently been approved by a convention of Tamil scholars.
I have already mentioned that when Anna first captured power and formed the D.M.K. Ministry in Tamil Nadu in 1967 he dedicated the whole Ministry to Periyar. And very soon he started introducing legislation after legislation to put into effect some of the progressive ideas of his mentor Periyar - the most significant of them being the one validating the Self-Respect system of marriage. And no less significant was the Act passed by the present Ministry (Under the Chief Ministership of Dr.Kalaignar Karunanidhi) in 1970 by which any Hindu irrespective of his caste can perform the duties of Archakas in temple. The particular Act was passed unanimously by the Legislature. But unfortunately it was paralysed by a judgment of the Supreme Court of India. During his tenure from 2006, he passed the Act.
As I have described earlier, Periyar and the Self-Respect Movement are synonymous. In his mission to recast society free of castes and other evils of his day, he embarked upon a method that was truly non-violent, though he never boasted over that fact. It is a great silent revolution, a bloodless revolution in the history of Tamil Nadu. Against in his grand endeavour he was alone and original with no ‘mentor’ to influence his thinking. He was so to say a self-made self-respecter, a doughty warrior, a lone crusader. Yet he had achieved such as no one else before him. It is true that there have been some efforts in the past by some to correct the evils in the society. Thiruvalluvar, Ramanujar, and Ramalingam were there. But their impact was feeble and left no imprint in the society. The case of Buddha was different. He was unlike the above three, a powerful personality and a social revolutionary in the strict sense of the term. But after a brief spell of initial success, Buddha was forgotten in India and so was his philosophy Even though Buddhism took roots in a number of countries, it was effectively ostracized in the land of his birth- by the all powerful Brahmins. It is in this respect Periyar succeeded where Buddha failed. In his own life time Periyar started reaping his dividends, as the Brahmin oligarchy was slowly but steadily crumbling. People to this part of the country have already started thinking on rational lines, so that they will no longer submit themselves blindly to Brahmins exploitation, religious subjugation or Northern domination. The new thinking was already demonstrated unmistakably whenever the gods of the Hindu pantheon were denigrated - notably in Salem in1971 just before the elections, and again when they were burnt down on Christmas Day in 1974.
After his demise in 1973 the Movement was being ably guided by the new President Annai E.V.R. Mani Ammaiyar. A notable event since her assuming the presidentship was the celebration of “Ravana Leela” in December, 1974, when the effigies of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana were burnt down. This event which rocked the entire orthodoxy all over India was no mean achievement of the movement today. A case was filed against Mrs.Maniammai and others including me. We were all acquitted.
Perhaps with this shift in people’s thinking and change in their attitudes that may be regarded as the most significant contribution of the Self-Respect Movement of Periyar E.V.Ramasamy we celebrated it’s Golden Jubilee in 1975 and Platinum Jubilee in 2000. This Movement is growing as a mass movement which preaches sele-respect to millions and millions in our country.